How to Write a Plot Outline for Your Book Idea: 7 Approaches to Outlining
by Alex Cabal
A plot outline is a way to organize your story idea into sequences before you begin writing. Writing an outline before you start writing your actual story provides the opportunity to flesh out the main plot points and the overall story structure, and to determine how to develop your characters.
Let’s explore several different ways to create an outline for your book idea.
What is a plot outline?
The simplest way to describe a plot outline is that it’s the skeleton of your story. Writing an outline means laying out a timeline of events that will occur in your book, including ideas for specific scenes and key character arcs. In general, an outline should answer the following questions:
What’s the main conflict and what’s at stake?
Who are your key characters and how do they grow and change?
What resolutions do you need to include, and how will you get there?
What is the timeline and sequence of events?
Why write a plot outline
A plot outline gives a writer the opportunity to brainstorm ideas, sequences, and turning points for their story before they begin the writing process. Creating an outline can alleviate issues that may occur later in the writing process—like plot holes—by organizing the plot structure from the very beginning.
Writing a plot outline can also assist with key character development and story arcs, as well as in identifying opportunities to include foreshadowing of major events and themes in the story.
7 different approaches to writing a plot outline
When selecting an approach to writing a plot outline, you’ll want to choose a methodology that works best for you and that aligns with the ideas you have for your story. For example:
If you already have a strong idea of who your characters are and the events that will occur, you may only need a rough outline to outline the start and end of your book for your introduction and conclusion.
If you have a general idea for your story but need to flush out some key details, writing a synopsis outline can assist you in discovering the pain points of your story. This style of outline still leaves plenty of room for flexibility if you want to make changes during the writing process.
If you plan to write a complex story with many subplots, moving parts, and foreshadowing, an in-depth outline may be right for you. An in-depth outline takes more time to create and is less flexible for changes during the writing process, as you’ll shape much of your story during the outlining process. However, for longer novels with complicated inner-workings, an in-depth outline can help you stay on track with all of the various scenes, characters, and subplots.
The following sections will detail each approach to creating outline templates for your book idea.
1. Start your outline from the story’s beginning
One of the best ways to create a book outline template is to start writing the plot outline from where the story starts, and then outline individual sequences of events along the timeline of your story.
This plot outline approach works well if you have a strong idea for a character, and perhaps the main conflict, but are still unsure of how the story will resolve in the end.
2. Start your outline from the story’s end
Starting your plot outline from the end is a great approach if you have an idea of the main theme or moral of the story and you already know how you want your character to end up at the resolution. Starting your outline from the end of the book allows you to work backward and discover the main plot points and challenges that your characters will need to experience to get them to their resolution.
3. Start your outline with character arcs
Character arcs are a great option for writing an outline for a fiction book. When you create a fiction outline based on character arcs, your plot points and story take shape while you sequence the scenes and events that must occur to support your character arcs.
Outlines based on character arcs are structured by following the events that delineate those arcs. In other words, instead of creating an outline that’s a timeline of the events of the main plot, you might create an outline that’s a timeline of how your main character’s arc develops, alongside a timeline of how a secondary character’s arc develops.
4. Create a mind map for your plot outline
A mind map is a great way to visually represent your entire story on one page. Mind maps also give you an incredible amount of flexibility, as your outline won’t necessarily be linear. Using a mind map allows you to creatively choose which ideas and details to introduce once you start writing your story.
Using a mind map can also be a great tool if you get stuck in writer’s block or are struggling for inspiration on what needs to occur in the plot to get your story where it needs to go. You can write a mind map down on paper, but there are also free mind map resources available online.
5. Create a storyboard for your plot outline
A storyboard is another great aid that you can use to write a plot outline. A storyboard is a linear visual representation of a sequence of events and is commonly used for film and graphic novel writing. The key difference between a storyboard and a regular outline is that a storyboard is visual. Typically, a storyboard template includes sequential boxes that allow you to draw simple illustrations of the scene of your novel with a space for notes for the scenes and characters underneath. You can manually draw a storyboard in your notebook, or use free storyboard templates online.
6. Use an outline template
There are many free plot outline templates online that you can download and print to create your own plot outline. Plot outline templates may be step-by-step and linear, including various offshoots of subplots, or they may follow a classic plot sequence like rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Additionally, there are common tropes within different genres that can and should be considered when selecting a plot outline template.
For example, a typical plot structure of a romance includes the introduction of the protagonist and their personal relationship conflict, meeting the love interest, further conflicts with the love interest, and then uniting the protagonist with the love interest in a way that they are forced to come to a resolution.
However, in a mystery or crime thriller, the crime is typically presented at the beginning of the novel, then the protagonist is introduced, followed by a series of conflicts that the protagonist must overcome before they can solve the mystery.Plus, the antagonist is often shrouded for most of the novel and may not be fully involved until later in the book.
As you can see, different genres can require different kinds of outline templates. Selecting the right outline template for the kind of story you plan on writing is essential to using that template successfully.
7. Use an archetype like the Hero’s Journey
Story archetypes are general soup-starters for the outline of your book, and there are many to choose from. The Hero’s Journey is a classic and formulaic archetype that relies on character archetypes, themes and symbols, and twelve steps that are broken down into a three-act structure.
Using the Hero’s Journey template is a quick way to identify the necessary elements and stages that must occur within the plot of your book so that your character can transform and grow to overcome the central and additional conflicts they encounter.
Is outlining right for you?
The writing process is unique to every writer, and every story will have its own needs. Some writers avoid outlining, as they prefer to go for a ride and see where their in-the-moment creativity takes the story. But writing an outline doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to follow it exactly.
Outlining is merely a map that assists you in reaching predetermined landmark moments in the story’s plot. It’s also an effective tool to use if your story idea is highly complex, lengthy, or you wish to incorporate a bit of nuanced foreshadowing. You’ll never know if outlining is right for you and your story idea until you try it on—and remember, you can always deviate from the plan if you feel like it!